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Advice I Took For Granted For Grad School

amysquareOver dinner one cold winter night my last year as an undergraduate, my advisor casually mentioned that unless I was offered a stipend, it wasn’t really an acceptance into graduate school. This was specific to my case to a certain degree – looking for a PhD program in the environmental sciences – but his words stayed with me. When it came time to choose schools, the 5 years of funding Duke offered me made a large part of my decision as to which graduate school I attended.

In a world where PhD students begin bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but often graduate unemployed, I’ve come to reflect upon this advice a bit more. I’ve had 5 years of support, essentially as an employee, and am now on my own to find my path in the world. But I didn’t saddle debt for my graduate education and could choose to parlay many of the skills learned (writing, teaching, project management) to any other career, should I choose. Compare this to other students, who saddle enormous debt for a master’s or doctorate expecting that this guarantees them a job able to pay off that debt. Thank goodness I listened over ziti that night.Now that I’ve put some distance between myself and the application process (and seen a few applicants from the other side), I’m glad that I had the courage to be demanding back then. I’d be even more so now.

One place I applied, as part of a medical school, offered me a stipend as part of a research assistantship. But no health insurance. Have you checked the rates for individuals getting health insurance these days? Say goodbye to the stipend. Pre-existing condition? Forget it (true back then, but hopefully Obamacare has fixed that particular hiccup in social well being). Moving on…

The next place, a state school, offered me two years of funding. This is fairly typical for schools with strained and somewhat uncertain budgets that depend on the political whims of elected officials. While some of these schools have a reasonable expectation for renewed funding, it still puts them at a recruitment disadvantage, especially when aiming to attract students who value stability. In this particular case, I’d seen enough current students working a full-time job to pay living expenses while taking 4 years to finish their master’s. No thanks.

The final place offered a single position for the human dimensions of long-term ecological research. This convoluted story starts with a disciplinary lesson but ends with finances. Aside from being a token social scientist, funding was contingent with my staying in the ecology department. Given that most research interests change over 5 years and my initial meeting with my potential advisor wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven, I wasn’t willing to make that bet. If I switched to sociology? No funding for me. This, again, is a disciplinary difference, where funding in the social sciences is less common – but still present, depending on where you go and what their strengths are.

So I chose Duke. While I don’t always understand their finances, at least I have some. I made the right decision for a number of reasons – but largely driven by concern about finances that, at the time, I very much did not have at my disposal. However, in retrospect, many wealthier students might not have the motivation or the kind warning from undergraduate advisors. This may lead some to think that partial offers, not including health insurance or a plan for when your project changes, are acceptable.

The reason I write this now is also as part of the larger discussion about the number of PhDs produced, which is rapidly becoming recognized as too many. As a result, there is some discussion over limiting the pipeline to make the promise of a job at the end more realistic. With higher degrees of debt taken on and competition for stable long-term employment options rising, perhaps it’s time to re-think the finances of graduate education. Perhaps schools should offer less positions but fully fund them. The solution then starts with a bit of sage advice – if you didn’t get offered a stipend, you didn’t get in.